Credulous, Superficial Media Coverage of Veterinary Alternative Medicine

The media loves to run cute human interest pieces on alternative medicine for animals. Reporters are seldom interested in the complexities or nuance of the evidence, but they love the warm, fuzzy, and slightly humorous image of alternative medicine applied to pets. In the name of “balance,” they usually include a quote from a token skeptic, though this is generally buried in an avalanche of quotes from CAM supporters, and often is edited and positioned to seem as unconvincing and unsympathetic as possible.

More and more often, I’m being asked to be that token skeptic. It’s not a very satisfying role, since the chances are slim of seeing a final article that reflects the reality of veterinary CAM as a marginalized practice with little convincing scientific evidence behind it. Still, presumably having even a sanitized token skeptical voice in these pieces is better than having none. Right? Hmm, well I hope so anyway.

Here are a couple of examples.

This piece from New York Magazine, preciously titled Dogupuncture, includes 4 positive quotes, 1 negative quote, and a graphic right up front purporting to show the rising popularity of acupuncture among vets. Out of all that I have written about acupuncture, the quote chosen was the conclusion from a systematic review which concluded there was insufficient evidence to reach a conclusion!

I have added a comment to give at least a bit of a response to some of the inaccurate implications of the pices, but that will likely only draw more angry responses from “satisfied customers” of veterinary acupuncture, rather than start a substantive discussion of the evidence.

The claim of ancient veterinary acupuncture is false: http://skeptvet.com/Blog/2010/07/the-history-of-ve… And it’s irrelevant anyway since bloodletting and slavery have been around as long or longer, and that doesn’t make them good ideas.

Even though animals don’t have beliefs about their care, there are absolutely placebo effects in veterinary care. The simplest is the Placebo by Proxy, in which the owner or vet thinks the pet is better because they want or expect it to be, and after all they are the ones who decide if the pet looks like it feels better. There is also Regression to the Mean, the Hawthorne Effect, Classical Conditions, Non-Specific Effects of Human Contact and many other factors that make bogus therapies look like they work.

Even in humans, acupuncture has not been shown to be more effective than fake acupuncture, and the evidence is even weaker in animals. (http://skeptvet.com/Blog/category/acupuncture/)

The bottom line is that belief in acupuncture, the popularity of acupuncture, and the length of time people having beein using acupuncture are all meaningless in terms of deciding whether or not it is useful. And despite decades or trying and a huge number of studies, scientific evidence still hasn’t shown it to be any better than placebo in controlled trials.  So the strength of the evidence for acupuncture is no better than that for faith healing, psychics, bloodletting, and lots of other healthcare practices that lots of people have believed in for a long time.

Unfortunately (for our pets), these things last because we so easily fool ourselves, and unreliable personal experiences are far more compelling emotionally than scientific data.

I’ve written previously about a Veterinary Practice News article on the Academy of Veterinary Homeopathy lawsuit against the American Association of Veterinary State Boards. It too is an example of a clearly one-sided piece with a token skeptic selectively cited in order to portray the skeptic position as weakly as possible.

The Veterinary Practice News reported on this lawsuit in early August. In a roughly 2000 word article, the author extensively quoted five supporters of homeopathy and of the lawsuit. She also quoted an official at the AAVSB who was not free to comment on pending litigation. And finally, she interviewed me for the article as the sole critic of the AVH position.

I was quoted as saying that homeopathy was not a science-based intervention, which is accurate. I was also quoted as saying that, “Alternative medicine providers are often better at treating psychological aspects of a medical incident an owner is dealing with, and there’s no doubt they are caring and compassionate…”This is partially correct in that I did acknowledge that alternative practitioners are undoubtedly as caring and compassionate as other veterinarians, but it misrepresents the point I was making that the reason methods like homeopathy are popular with a small percentage of the pet-owning public is not because they actually work but because of the psychological effects, essentially a placebo-by-proxy, that the interaction with the practitioner has on the owner.

Lastly, I was quoted as saying that, “these therapies are not taught in veterinary schools.” This is followed by a “gotcha” list of veterinary schools that offer elective courses in “integrative medicine” or have “holistic medicine” student organizations. This is clearly intended to undermine the credibility of my comments. However, this is again a manipulative misrepresentation of my position.

Homeopathy is clearly not part of the core veterinary curriculum, nor is it generally accepted as a valid approach to medicine at U.S. veterinary colleges. The AVH does not dispute this in their complaint. And of the four veterinary schools (out of 28 in the U.S.) mentioned in the article as having “elective courses in CAVM or integrative veterinary medicine,” I could not find any that actually do have a course in homeopathy, though CSU does offer an elective called “Critical Overview of Complementary and Alternative Medicine” taught by Narda Robinson, who is a vocal critic of homeopathy. It is possible, of course, that a couple of schools do have credulous individuals on faculty who teach that homeopathy is scientifically legitimate, but if so these represent a rare minority opinion which is discounted by the overwhelming majority of veterinary scientists. The article was a barely disguised propaganda piece for the AVH position with only a superficial nod towards the idea of journalistic neutrality.

There are a few other similar pieces I’ve been involved with that haven’t come out yet, but only one that I expect may be of higher quality than the usual sort like these.

Perhaps it’s the intrinsic character of the subject matter. Alternative medicine presents a simplistic and comforting face, and science is naturally complicated, ambiguous, and seemingly hypercritical. Or perhaps it’s the declining number of well-trained reporters specializing in science-journalism. After all, most veterinary stories appear in the Lifestyle section of magazines and newspapers, where the standards are lower than in the science, health, or news sections. In any case, as long as even a token skeptical voice is included, perhaps this will at least offer some comfort to those who value the messy truth over a good story.

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8 Responses to Credulous, Superficial Media Coverage of Veterinary Alternative Medicine

  1. zyrcona says:

    I used to be a scientist (a research chemist) and unfortunately it’s my understanding of people that general society fears science and scientists. Science is frequently portrayed in films and fiction as a sinister art practiced by labcoat-clad, goggles-toting villains with god complexes who get killed horribly as a direct result of their meddling, with some vague concept of nature or the status quo as the decent side that ultimately wins. Few people who haven’t been educated in a scientific area have much grasp of what science and the scientific method actually involve. Science is portrayed poorly in the media, even when it’s portrayed in a positive light. I’ve read numerous articles in magazines and newspapers about areas I’m familiar with only to find the meaning has become so mangled and dumbed-down in trying to present it in an accessible way that the theory and results behind it no longer bear any resemblance to the correct understanding.

    Of course, there are a large number of rip-off merchants who are only happy to exploit this, either by claiming something is science when it isn’t, or by claiming science and medicine are a conspiracy theory and that their product is proven to work because it’s ‘natural’, ‘traditional’, or ‘intuitive’.

  2. Art says:

    A Virginia judge dismissed the homeopathy CE lawsuit against the state board association. Sid storozum said the avh would file a new motion to reconsider. I wonder what that cost in lawyer fees.
    Art Malernee dvm

  3. skeptvet says:

    I saw the court record listing the case as Dismissed, but I haven’t found any news reports or the comment by Dr. Storozum. Where did you see that?

  4. skeptvet says:

    Yes, people are deeply abivalent about science. They clearly value it, which is what makes claims about a product being “scientifically proven” useful in marketing. You can’t even buy shampoo without seeing such claims in the advertising.

    Yet people understand little about the details of how science is conducted, so they tend to be a bit suspicious of it. And the media does such a poor job of reporting scientific research, they only make issues more foggy and perplexing than they really are.

  5. Art says:

    Vet practice news may issue page.
    A lot of the anti science stuff I grew up with was to promote religion so I would not burn in hell .

    Art

  6. Art says:

    Sorry page 4
    Art

  7. skeptvet says:

    Ah, I guess the May issue isn’t online yet, and I don’t get the print edition. I’ll check it out when it goes online.

    Given your history, you might enjoy this:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KayBys8gaJY

  8. v.t. says:

    Skeptvet, I’m sorry your “interview” was taken out of context, it’s situations like that, that only make it much more difficult for skeptics. I would have demanded the author/editor correct your statements or accepted a “letter to the editor” giving you the chance to correct it (or state on record the publication or article was ever-so-obviously slanted, thereby wasting your valuable time, effort and expertise). I realize you’re probably above all that…I’m just sayin’ 🙂

    That said, the article in question was a joke, the lawsuit was a joke, and any one with a brain who read it should have been able to see it for what it was: CAVM proponents crying foul because they’re expected to practice (or teach) real medicine, and to prove their claims in a scientific manner if they are to be taken seriously. I applaud RACE for taking a stand against non-SBM – if they don’t, who will?

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